February 2004

Karin L. Kross

features

An Interview with Craig Thompson

People are talking about Craig Thompson. A co-worker of mine who doesn't read comics noticed my copy of Blankets and said, "Oh, I've heard that's great." In Time Magazine's list of top graphic novels for 2003, Blankets was #1. Thompson, who makes his home in Portland, Oregon, seems to take it in stride; when I spoke to him by phone, he was personable, friendly, and clearly very serious about where his work is going. In this interview, he talks about his debut graphic novel, Good-Bye, Chunky Rice, Blankets, and where he's going next.

First of all, I'm really glad to be talking to you, because I absolutely enjoyed Blankets tremendously.

Thank you.

And also Good-Bye, Chunky Rice. I'll start with one of my standard questions. What's your personal history with comic books? How did you discover comics when you were growing up?

The first comics I remember getting were these free Spider-Man comics that were enclosed in the Daily Texan newspaper that my grandma would send to me. They were free -- besides that, it was newspaper comic strips, anything that was free, that was comics, I would read. Library books. And I loved comics as a kid, but I don't know if I necessarily loved them any more than all the other crap I was into -- you know, like movies and video games, toys and cartoons on Saturday morning. Around preadolescence, like junior high, I was really getting into the "collector" thing, and then that kind of dissipated by the time I got to high school because I wanted to pursue girls. And so it really wasn't until I started community college and that's when my real interest in them developed.

What were you reading at the time?

The first things I found were Mike Allred's Madman and Jeff Smith's Bone. And this is coming from the context of having friends all through high school that read comics, and they would try to sell me on comics -- they'd bring me to comics stores or loan me stuff -- and none of it clicked. I didn't get it all. I was like "Okay, whatever -- comic books!" Then when I turned 19 or so; that's when those books popped up on the market. Some friend was dragging me to the comics store and it was the first time that I found something there that I liked. That kind of helped start me.

It sounds like you pretty much got into the smaller, black-and-white type books -- the non-superhero type stuff.

Oh yeah, definitely not superheroes. But those two -- in some sense they are really accessible, in a small-town comics shop, and it wasn't until I moved again that I was able to branch out and find other things.

Now, in Blankets, there are a lot of pieces in there about you drawing as a kid. At what point did you realize that comics was your form, the one you really wanted to work in?

Not until I was 19 years old, like what I as describing, starting community college, 18 or 19. Most of high school, I was really into cartoons, but I was consumed with animation and really wanted to do that. I kind of went through different phases in high school. One was this very modest small-town phase where I wanted to work as an artist, so I would probably get a job at designing tire ads. Which I did end up doing at one point. But I didn't think I could do anything beyond that -- I had very modest goals. Sophomore, junior year, I was really getting into animation, and thinking, "Okay, I'm going to go to Cal Arts in California and get a job at…" I don't know, Walt Disney, and do animation. And by the time I was a senior, for a number of reasons, I became really disillusioned with that idea, because Disney seems like the peak of what you could do in animation. I sort of went back to that small-town mentality, thinking "Wait a minute, I'm not going to be able to go to art school and do these sort of things." And my girlfriend was still in high school when I graduated, so I ended up going to community college in the same town. A friend invited me to do a comic strip for the college newspaper, and as I tried that out, I just kind of fell in love with [comics], suddenly. It filled all my needs -- I was able to draw cartoons, to tell a story; but I also had total control, and I wasn't just a cog in some machine somewhere.

That moment of recognition is something I'm interested in -- I see what you mean, though, about having control that you would as a comic artist or as a cartoonist, rather than as an animator.

Yeah, that was a big part of that disillusionment -- realizing, "Oh, wait, I'm just going to be one of those guys that has to animate snowflakes, or one of the 'water' animators in a Disney shop." That would have been really excruciating.

So I wanted to ask some questions -- kind of a segue here -- to Good-Bye, Chunky Rice. I read Good-Bye, Chunky Rice after I finished Blankets -- it was interesting, I couldn't help thinking of it as a product of yourself, your maturation, as you depict yourself in Blankets. Does it feel that way to you? I don't know if that question made any sense.

No -- I mean, if you're saying that you could pick up on Christian overtones in it, being raised Christian, and moving from a small town to a bigger town…

Yeah, it seems -- to clarify my question, it seems like the Craig of Blankets is the kind of person who would go on to create Good-Bye, Chunky Rice.

Okay... is that a good thing?

Oh, it's definitely a good thing. It was just interesting to read Good-Bye, Chunky Rice after Blankets.

That's pretty cool. I like that.

You mentioned moving from a small town to a big city, and being raised Christian -- what were some of the other influences that helped you create Good-Bye, Chunky Rice?

CT: Well, I really grew up to -- I was obsessed with Jim Henson and the Muppets, and Dr. Seuss, and Tim Burton -- I think those influenced where Good-Bye, Chunky Rice was coming from more than any comics per se. It was a little Dr. Seuss, Tim Burton, Sanrio -- cute cartoony stuff.

Yeah, it definitely has that flavor.

A lot of those influenced that ... I should try to be more specific, though.

Be as specific as you like.

I remember a comic book that really inspired Good-Bye, Chunky Rice was Walt Holcombe's King of Persia.

I'm not familiar with that.

That's one of those books that seems to have disappeared off the scene. But I remember it was one of the first little 64-page volumes that I got and was like, "Ah, this the kind of comics I want to make!" You know, it had this lyrical quality of sweet but also really sad. So that was a big comics inspiration.

It's interesting -- you mentioned earlier that Bone was one of the first comics that really caught your interest, because I can almost see sort of a connection there as well.

Yeah, there's that cute element, and the brushline. I remember when I was first getting into the comics scene just with some minicomics and meeting other cartoonists, two of my first cartoonist friends were Steve Weissman and Ed Brubaker. While I was working on Good-Bye, Chunky Rice they came and visited in Portland. They were looking over the pages and they were like, "Aren't you scared that this is going to be too cutesy for the alternative comics scene?" And I hadn't really thought about it up to that point, you know; I just had this sort of -- especially with that book -- a sort of natural draw towards cuteness. At that point I hadn't thought about it at all.

It works really well for the story, I thought. Was that your first widely published comic, other than minicomics?

I'd just done a couple minicomics, and that was going to be a minicomic too, except that I had just moved to Portland, and Brett Warnock, who was the sole publisher of Top Shelf at the time, said, "Oh, I'll publish this!" And after promising that -- it was just a minicomic then -- he joined up with Chris Staros and they decided they wanted to do graphic novels. And then I was working on Good-Bye, Chunky Rice and it kept growing and growing, and at one point I was like, "Oh, this is going to be like 60 pages long!" and they said, "Okay, we'll still publish it." And it ended up being a graphic novel, sort of accidentally.

Was there anything in particular that that experience taught you, that you took with you when you started working on Blankets?

Ah -- just that finishing things is a good idea! I had started a lot of projects before then where I'd get 20 pages into it and then I'd lose interest, then a couple months later start up a new project. I was never finishing anything. And so, whether Good-Bye, Chunky Rice has limitations or weaknesses or whatnot, just the fact that I finished it was a big deal, and it ended up being quite successful for that point in my life. So Blankets was a lot easier. Even though it was going to be a much bigger book, I was like, "Well, all I have to do is finish it."

Puts things in perspective, doesn't it? That leads to one of my questions about Blankets. It's so big, and it's so complex; when you started working on it, did you have some kind of map for where you were going to go?

Yeah, I started with just a sort of outline on notecards, but then I spent a year -- a whole year, part-time -- doing a thumbnail rough, and I edited that a few times before I started on the pages. So in some sense it was almost as if I had finished the book already. I worked the thumbnails to satisfaction, and it was weird to start the final pages, because it was like, well, I'd just finished the story. So in a way, I deprived myself of that sense of surprise that some cartoonists have when they make it up as they go. But also, once I had a rhythm going on of working on it... I did hone it more as I was working on it.

That's interesting, because in a way that's a very writerly method, in that you did your rough draft and then your final draft. That's a method you normally associate with novelists and prose writers rather than comics.

Yeah, and probably the main reason with comics is there's not the ease of editing. Even after that, I went through the final pages, which took a couple years. And I did go back and edit again, but it takes so long to edit a page of comics as opposed to a page of text.

It's not like you can go in there and cut and paste a few sentences.

Yeah.

What was the project like, tackling autobiographical subjects like that? I'm curious what it was like, from an intellectual standpoint and from a craft standpoint, what it was like to delve into your own history for a work like that.

CT: It was a bit strange, because -- well, the part I enjoyed was that from the beginning, I knew that I wanted to tell a personal and intimate story, even simple. I wanted it to be a long work that actually had very simple themes, and so autobio was perfectly suited to that. Also, right away, as I started crafting it or shaping it, I wanted to change certain things to make a story, and soon as I considered changing one thing, I'm like, "Well, I could change anything." There's this temptation to -- several times to just throw out the autobio element entirely. But then once I decided to stick to it, it gave me this strange framework that I don't think I would have come up with on my own. It's like, okay, I have to present this scene because it happened, or, this scene happened, but I have to make it interesting to read. It limited me in some ways, and that was kind of exciting.

Yeah, there are a lot of ideas about how limitations can force creativity -- do you feel that's something that happened to you?

Yeah, I think so, and I know that for a lot of people that works with serialized comics, having the regular deadline, page counts they have to fill.

One thing I found really interesting about Blankets is that there's an interesting sort of timelessness to it, in the mood and the setting. I knew it was a contemporary story, but it didn't fully click until I saw the posters in Raina's room -- "oh god, he's about my age!" The almost ethereal quality of time in that story -- is that something you were aiming for?

I don't know if I was specifically aiming for that, I mean, I kind of feel like that in general. But I tried to actually capture the sort of ridiculous 90s generation X grunge thing.

Yeah, I thought that was great, I knew people like that in high school. What sort of movies and music did you have that were shaping that work? What sort of stuff were you drawing inspiration from while you worked on it?

Oh boy. So much. A pretty vast array of stuff -- I'm trying to think of what movies might have been coming out. I remember very specifically -- and these are much more highbrow than Blankets -- but I read the entirety of Remembrance of Things Past by Proust while I was working on the book, and I read Ada, by Nabokov. Those were two favorite novels at the time. Big honkers. And I don't know if the influence shows.

I think the Proust does -- there's something very Proustian about Blankets.

It's the meditation on memory.

Right, right.

Trying to think of films at the time. There's so much. Everything from Happiness, Todd Solondz's film, to But I'm a Cheerleader, which was a hilarious film. A pretty wide array of stuff. I don't think I could pin it down. French comics were a big influence. It was around 2000 that I started discovering all these great French comics, and they had totally different sensibilities from the ones in America. A lot more expressive, and a sort of sensuality to them. Whereas, you know, American comics up to that point had a certain crass element to them. I mean, it was amazing to find these comics that were all very sensuous.

In terms of the visual style and the writing and all?

Yeah, and the content too -- you know, more romance than action.

Kind of like French and American movies.

Yeah. And there's all kinds of great French films I saw during that time too.

So Blankets took you -- you said about 2, 3 years?

Yeah, all in all, three and a half years.

That's a long time to commit.

Yeah, and it was definitely a part time project, because I didn't get any money to work on it.

It's obviously a very different work -- visually at least, maybe not necessarily in tone, but visually it's very different from your earlier stuff. How do you feel it's helped you mature as an artist?

I think somewhere around that time I made a jump from just being into cartoons to art in general -- visual arts in general. I was consuming a lot of -- nothing modern, but I was really obsessed with the line work and the drawings of, say, from Lautrec, to Matisse drawings, Renoir drawings. So nothing modern -- pretty distanced from modern art, post-post-modern art and whatnot. But I moved from the realm of cartoons and comic strips to really studying a lot more expressive art. And right now I'm pretty obsessed with Arabic calligraphy, so now I'm kind of drawn into the calligraphic realm of drawing and ink work.

There's definitely a very… the artwork in Blankets reminded me at times of Matisse or Chagall, that kind of late 19th, early 20th century French painting.

Yeah, that was a big influence.

So you mentioned Arabic calligraphy -- I take it that plays into some of the stuff you're working on now?

Yeah, the working title for the new book is Habibi, and it's a sort of an Arabian folktale of my own making. Not that I have… not that I'm justified in telling such a story; it'll definitely be filtered through my isolated Western sensibilities. But that's the stuff I'm reading now, a lot of Islamic art, culture, the original Arabian Nights, the Burton translation. I'm going to go on a trip to Morocco in about a month. I'm just sort of drawing on all these fun, fantastical, exotic elements of Islamic culture.

Did you come to that at all through the current events of the last couple of years?

I suppose it's probably important in some way. Some of the elements were there right from the start. Before Blankets, even, I wanted to tell, of all things, a story about child slaves, so I kind of had started with that. And I also wanted to tell a fantastical story that took place in this more exotic landscape, and as I was playing with my sketchbooks and stuff, it started taking on this -- I thought it might take place in India or something. And as I was consuming different influences, I realized that -- it's also somewhat of a political allegory, and an environmental allegory. So that part has been shaped a lot by current events. And maybe there's a desire to humanize Islamic culture, instead of it always being vilified.

Are you feeling any pressure about this?

Yeah, totally.

Because Blankets was so widely acclaimed -- is that adding to what you're feeling about the new project?

Oh, no, not necessarily. It's more so the sensitivity of, well, what right do I have to play with this material? Obviously when you're doing autobio, nobody can give you grief for that, because it's your own story. But I had a lot of trepidation with Blankets too -- would it come off as egocentric and not accessible, and kind of pathetic. I liked having the challenge.

When are you looking at completing Habibi?

Ultimately I'd like to have it done for summer 2005. But I don't know. That's my aim. But with Blankets my aim, I think, was for a couple years earlier. And this will probably be as long as Blankets, in page length.

Same large format?

Yeah. Not intentionally. I just started writing and I'm about 60 pages into it now, and just in terms of the pace that it's unfolding, I'm like, "Okay, this is going to be another long book." Probably at least as long as Blankets. And, you know, I could go in and find ways to cut the page length, make it more dense like a lot of other cartoonists, but this is the pace that I'm comfortable writing in and like to read in, so for better or worse it's going to be another long book. I mean, I think my books are long, but quick to read.

Yeah, I agree. I certainly noticed this with Blankets -- as much as goes on in there, the pacing I thought was wonderful -- not exactly leisurely, but very relaxed.

That's good to hear. I think most comics are really claustrophobic, both to look at and to read, especially for people that don't regularly read comics. Because I come from this animation background, I really focus a lot on these things.

Yeah, sometimes when I read comics these days, I feel as if I ought to be drinking a lot of caffeine.

And shouting.

Right. One question I forgot to ask earlier, do you have any feeling for how comics fits in with the current state of the arts today? Since comics is sort of seen as this weird bastard stepchild in the world of movies and novels -- what's your sense for where it stands, where it's going?

Well, I actually have high hopes. But not like, grand hopes -- you know, I don't think it's going to ever necessarily meet up with those other mediums. But I think we're on some sort of natural progression, where it's like, the 60s -- all the undergrounds, there were comics that were appealing to adults. And in the 80s there was the RAW generation, kind of edgy, hip comics that appealed to some sort of counterculture. And now it looks like they're filtering into bookstores. So that audience is expanding a bit. I think it's still going to be a small group of people that are going to be into it, but I think the potential is much bigger for the audience. It's kind of an old-fashioned medium, and I think it has to embrace the fact that it's old-fashioned. I think it's got to get rid a lot of the more immature elements, like the superhero thing, because that's been replaced by video games, and all this entertainment for adolescent males. So I think it has to start embracing that other, old-fashioned quality -- this hand-drawn medium, this quiet, intimate medium, and I think there's a lot more readers out there that it would appeal to.